The 12e A series of corps commander-level talks between the armies of India and China recently concluded with a joint statement carrying the usual homilies on improving mutual understanding and resolving remaining disputes along of the Real Line of Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. It is worth noting that no concrete forward movement has been visible in the unfinished disengagement process which has stalled since the withdrawal of Indian and Chinese troops from the Pangong Tso area in February of this year. Certainly, discussions of other sticking points – Gogra, Hot Springs, and Depsang Plains – continue and plans are underway to establish a buffer zone at one of the sticking points. But on this point too, China’s approval is awaited. As I mentioned in my previous articles, India is for the long haul, as the Chinese are unlikely to give up their military and strategic advantages accumulated through entry into Indian territory and its enhanced military infrastructure. along the ALC.
Several theories have been put forward as to why China is adopting an aggressive posture towards India at the LAC while continuing to advocate for peace and cooperation between the two countries. These range from China asserting itself as the No.1 power in Asia to Beijing’s desire to unbalance New Delhi and remind it of the consequences of a rapprochement with the West. As with many things in international relations, the truth is multifaceted involving several factors. Therefore, all current theories regarding China’s foreign and military policy stance contain a kernel of truth. But none of them can claim to be the definitive truth.
So yes, China doesn’t want India to get too close to the West and Beijing has indeed embarked on high-pitched nationalist rhetoric. But my addition to the truth is that China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, has tried to rejuvenate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and extend its lifespan. Admittedly, this assessment may seem strange. In fact, many would say that the CCP seems the strongest ever today. But the reality is that when Xi took office as secretary general and party chairman in 2012-13, he inherited a grown-up CCP with multiple centers of power. While this was a natural consequence of three decades of China’s economic openness and skyrocketing GDP growth, it also strained the party’s internal unity. CCP leaders rule by internal consensus. But what happens when ideas about what that consensus is start to diverge?
And with different party-state power centers presiding over their respective gigantic fiefdoms, the CCP risked being separated from within. Xi understood this very well and therefore embarked on a massive campaign to clean up those elements within the party’s start-up system that no longer put the party’s ideology and interests above their own. This was the real motivation behind Xi’s massive anti-corruption campaign, as well as his decision to change the Chinese constitution in 2018, strengthening the party’s leadership on all levers of the Chinese state.
All of these internal changes have been formulated in the rhetoric of nationalism. As is the case everywhere, nationalism is the best cover for undertaking deep structural political changes because it allows those who oppose it to be labeled traitors or anti-nationals. What does this have to do with the border issues between India and China? Well, Xi’s nationalist turn means China needs to be assertive in its neighborhood and follow through on historic claims. Therefore, China has been particularly aggressive in asserting its historic claims in the South and East China Seas as well as along its border with India. While the South China Sea is an easy target for China today because it has the world’s largest navy and the ability to build man-made islands – thus achieving easy political and strategic victories here – with the India, Tibet is the crucial factor.
Xi knows that one of the CCP’s main vulnerabilities is the relationship of ethnic minorities with the Chinese state. When the People’s Republic of China was formed, the Chinese state promised ethnic minorities the freedom to preserve their culture and way of life. However, over the decades, the notion of functional autonomy of minorities has gradually eroded. Additionally, the Chinese state has been willing to pour billions of dollars into ethnic minority provinces like Tibet to integrate them into the nation. But there was a problem. No matter how much money Beijing has spent on Tibet, Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia, it could not change the hearts and minds of ethnic minorities. And while that was the case, Xi in Beijing couldn’t complete his plan to strengthen the party’s authority over all of China and rid the CCP of unworthy elements.
Moreover, by allowing even a semblance of autonomy for Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, Xi believes he is leaving an opportunity for those in the party who might be secretly against his policies to disturb him in those provinces. In fact, the same logic applies to foreign actors who can also use these ethnic minority provinces to retaliate against Beijing’s aggression. China, which is currently dealing with the Taliban, shows precisely this apprehension that Beijing has towards Xinjiang regarding the threat of foreign incitement to insurgency in that province. Likewise, the United States has made it clear that it will support the aspirations and rights of Tibetans while India, of course, hosts the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community.
Therefore, China’s aggression along the border with India is a message to both New Delhi and Washington not to use Tibet as a tool to get back to Beijing. It is also part of Xi’s centralization project which seeks to firmly integrate Tibet into the PRC by submitting Tibetan culture to the Chinese state. This was the intention behind Xi’s recent visit to Tibet to mark the 70e anniversary of the alleged peaceful liberation of Tibet. Add to this the fact that China is now encouraging the recruitment of Tibetans into its People’s Liberation Army, and Xi’s message is clear: Tibet can forget about autonomy or any special privileges and must become fully integrated into the state. Chinese. This is crucial for the preservation and integrity of the CCP. And all of this will be done under the guise of aggressive Chinese nationalism, so other countries should beware. But Xi should not forget the old Chinese adage “wu (4) ji (2) bi (4) fan (3)” which means that when things reach an extreme, they can only go in the opposite direction.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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